A Manitoba pet owner says she is shocked by the gulf in prices she was quoted for veterinary care for her cat.

Grande Pointe resident Valdine Bjornson wants to know why one clinic quoted her almost $1,000 more than another clinic for a tooth extraction on her cat, Snuffy.

“I was shocked, first of all, and I was angry because I don't understand,” she said in an interview with CBC News.

Valdine Bjornson

Valdine Bjornson has filed a complaint about her vet clinic experience with the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association. (CBC)

​Bjornson has taken her complaint to the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA), which is the regulatory body for veterinarians.

Bjornson had taken Snuffy to the Southglen Veterinary Hospital in Winnipeg last spring because she was concerned about a growth on his mouth.

The veterinarian told Bjornson that Snuffy needed a tooth extracted.

“Basically she said it would be about $1,100 for the extraction,” Bjornson said. 

Bjornson balked at the estimate and contacted a clinic in Steinbach, Man., to get a second opinion. She went there the next morning and the veterinarian agreed the tooth needed to come out — at a cost of under $200.

Bjornson was astounded with the price difference for the tooth extraction.

She added that the first veterinarian had told her the growth on Snuffy’s face could be removed and tested for cancer at an additional cost of $500 to $600. The Steinbach veterinarian told her the growth was not a concern to him.

Southglen Veterinary Hospital owner Dr. Manjit Sra told CBC News he cannot discuss Bjornson's complaint because it is currently being investigated by the MVMA.

But in a statement sent Friday, Sra said pet owners should be asking veterinarians "if there are less costly alternatives, and how these might affect the pet's health.

"Doing this will allow for a more clear comparison of cost estimates between different clinics. It will also help the pet owner understand why one veterinarian may recommend certain options [such as blood work or cleaning of teeth] while another may not offer them in order to reduce the cost of the procedure," he added.

Sra said Southglen staff "include all the steps and procedures we think is best for a pet's health" when providing estimates for clients.

"However, we are always open to then work with the owner and their budget," he said.

"If a client expresses concern that the cost of the procedure is outside of their budget, we will review the quote and determine if there are some services that can be removed that will not be put the pet at undue risk."

Ask questions about fees, says vet

Dr. Philipp Schott, a representative of the association’s peer review committee, also said he cannot comment specifically on Bjornson’s case but he suggested that consumers ask questions if they are uncomfortable with vet fees.

“If it doesn’t seem right, ask questions. The veterinarian should, without hesitation, be able to justify that fee,” he told CBC News.

'Veterinary medicine is the one place in society where love and money intersect like nowhere else.'- Philipp Schott

Bjornson said she tried to include fees in her complaint, but the MVMA representative she spoke with told her to reformulate her complaint to deal with a potential misdiagnosis.

“She didn’t want to deal with the charges — the money, the estimate, or the difference in the price — at all. She didn’t think that was in their jurisdiction at all,” Bjornson said.

The MVMA is responsible for licensing veterinarians in Manitoba and is governed by the province’s Veterinary Medical Act.

The association’s mandate includes the delivery of veterinary medicine, and it handles complaints and enforces professional standards.

However, “The MVMA does not regulate fees, so we don't have that authority. So those complaints are turned away,” Schott explained.

Philipp Schott

Philipp Schott, a representative of the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association's peer review committee, suggests that pet owners ask questions if they are uncomfortable with vet fees. (CBC)

Bjornson said that should change and she believes the MVMA could regulate the fee structure as part of its mandate to care for animals.

The MVMA’s peer review committee sent a letter to Bjornson this past spring, acknowledging her complaint and indicating that the process could take “four months or longer.”

Bjornson said pet owners feel vulnerable to high fees because of their emotional attachment to their animals.

“I can completely empathize with that,” said Schott. “Veterinary medicine is the one place in society where love and money intersect like nowhere else.”

Schott said in his own practice, he tries to lay out options for consumers if finances are an issue.

 “We try to give people options, you know: there is Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. There is always other ways to address problems,” he said.

In a statement to CBC News, a government spokesperson said, "We believe the public should be protected and that transparency in the industry is very important and we will be closely looking at it, if further steps need to be taken."

Owner says clinic held her dog 'hostage'

Another pet owner told CBC News that her experience with a Manitoba veterinary clinic left her with the impression that it was more focused on getting its money and less on caring for her animal.

Sandra Morris

Sandra Morris says when she brought her poodle cross, Toby, to the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital in 2010, she was not allowed to see her dog until the bill was paid. (CBC)

Sandra Morris brought her poodle cross, Toby, to the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital in 2010 after he became sick.

The hospital X-rayed Toby and kept him hospitalized for four days. During that time, the bill kept climbing, topping out at almost $3,000.

"Every time we came back, the bill was different.  It was always a lot higher,” Morris said.

Vet responds

CBC News contacted Dr. Delores Faucher, a veterinarian who cared for Sandra Morris’s dog, Toby, at the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital.

Faucher responded on Friday to Morris’s complaint that she was not allowed to see her pet while the payment was being arranged.

Faucher said she is very sorry for what happened with the dog, and she regrets that it came across to the owner as if the clinic was only interested in money.

“When the dog was to be discharged, I wasn’t there. Had I been, I would have said she could take him,” Faucher said.

She pointed out that the clinic's owner has revised policies so it won’t happen again.

Faucher added that the complaint investigation by the MVMA cleared her of any discipline concerning the care provided to Toby.

Toby was to be transferred to another veterinary clinic for surgery. But while the dog was waiting to be transferred, the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital would not let Morris see Toby until the bill was paid.

There had been a delay in processing her credit card payment.

“They actually held Toby hostage,” she said. "It was all about the money and getting paid. Toby was second, and his health was second."

After the surgery at the other clinic revealed a large, cancerous tumour, Toby was put down.

Morris filed a complaint with the MVMA about her dog’s care at the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital.

Following an investigation, the MVMA sent Morris a letter saying its peer review committee could sympathize with her being upset because it appeared that the veterinarian “was overly aggressive in trying to collect the fees owed.”

But the letter stated that the vet “was only following the usual administrative procedures of the WAEH.”

The committee also concluded that “it was very heartless of them to not allow you to visit Toby” while the clinic was straightening out the payment.

The MVMA wrote a letter to the animal clinic’s owner, saying “this action was very upsetting to the client and contributed to the negative experience encountered at the WAEH that instigated the client’s complaint.”

The association asked the clinic to “be more considerate and understanding of your client’s feelings in the future and allow them to visit with their pet while awaiting payment or transfer arrangements.”

Hospital reviewed its pet visitation policy

When CBC News contacted the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital for comment, owner Dr. David Scammell said a former employee had told Morris she could not see her dog until payment arrangements were complete.

“This was wrong and very unfortunate and I certainly understand why Ms. Morris was upset. After this incident, we reviewed the visitation policy and shared it with staff to ensure everyone understood it in order to prevent this type of incident from happening to another pet owner,” Scammell said in a written statement.

He added that new employees are also being made aware of the policy.

“It is terribly unfortunate that what was already a distressing time for Ms. Morris was made worse by the actions of an employee of the veterinary hospital acting in this fashion. I feel badly about how the situation was handled,” Scammell said.

The investigation by the complaints committee also concluded the veterinarian caring for Toby “erred in not discussing or providing pain management on the initial visit.”

“I wasn’t very happy with the response I got. All [the veterinarian] really got was a slap on the wrist,” Morris said.

Morris is calling for the MVMA to hold veterinarians accountable for the fees they are charging.

Schott said regulating vet fees would not be practical given the different ways clinics offer services, including late and early pickup, monitoring, pain control, and personnel.

“All those things factor into the price, so it’s hardly ever an ‘apples to apples’ comparison,” he explained. “Fees will vary from clinic to clinic.”

“There is no doubt modern medicine technology is expensive — it’s expensive for humans, it’s expensive for animals,” he added.

Veterinarians' responses

Read below the full statements from Manjit Sra of the Southglen Veterinary Hospital and David Scammell of the Winnipeg Animal Emergency Hospital.